Goodbye, Columbus

We'd almost made it back to earth when the pilot's voice crackled over the cabin speaker. Night fog. Crash conditions. It was the Saturday night after Thanksgiving and our flight into the Twin Cities airport was already hours late. The plane circled several times--spending fuel, waiting for the weather to break--then finally gave up. We broke orbit and headed northwest for Fargo, across that stretch of flyover land that from the air, once the fog cleared, looked more like the sky than the sky did--constellations of rural towns, the Mississippi like a Milky Way, and the lone star of a farm here and there.

It was past midnight then. Babies were throwing up all over the plane. The suit behind me was muttering something about a hijack. Between the fluorescent lights, the stale air, and snack nausea, the whole scene started to slide into the surreal. Just before we touched down, I caught sight of what looked to be the White Earth reservation below, nearly invisible except for the few sparse lights marking its perimeter in the dark.

And in my lap, on page 244 of Winona LaDuke's debut novel, Last Standing Woman (Voyageur Press), Claire St. Clair--an Ojibwe woman born on White Earth while the Depression was making even the dirt dirt-poor--was down on her knees before the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes. A short while later, St. Clair hit the $14 million jackpot in the Minnesota state lottery, and our Flight from Hell touched down in Fargo.

Coincidence? Sure. Still, it seemed a fitting thing to be reading about while flying over a reservation that, like so many others, was once close to being erased from the map. And so from the air, I saw the lights of the present, while LaDuke's history filled the dark cabin, drawing the borders that were officially set 130 years ago by a treaty between the Ojibwe (also known as the Anishinabe or Chippewa) with the federal government.

Today, we learn from LaDuke's epic--spanning several eras from 1800 to 2001--that over 90 percent of those original 837,000 acres are owned by non-Indians, transferred over the years by fraud, tax foreclosure, and plain old theft. In truth, the White Earth Land Recovery Project, founded by LaDuke in the early '90s, has already bought back 1,000 acres and set sights on thousands more. In the novelized version, Claire St. Clair performs her own bit of poetic justice by financing the buy-back with her lottery booty, right after she treats herself to a Supremesian beehive and heels.

If the name Winona LaDuke rings a bell, it might be because she was Ralph Nader's running mate on the preternaturally quiet '96 Green Party ticket. Or because she hosted the Indigo Girls' "Honor the Earth" tour in 1995, the same year Time named her one of "50 [leaders] for the Future." Anyway, LaDuke's been high profile as an Anishinabe activist and environmentalist for the better part of her 38 years, helping raise the Cain that stopped clear-cutting on White Earth and put corrupt tribal chair Chip Wadena and his cronies behind bars. It's no surprise, then, that Last Standing Women is a novel with a fairly neat aim: to educate readers about life on the rez, its (at times revisionist) history and immediate prospects, in a framework that allows for elaboration, antics, and whim.

Yet, I frankly didn't expect to like Last Standing Woman so much. Fiction in the service of an obvious political agenda is risky stuff, prone to the pitfalls of crude characters who stand in for principles, and plots that mire in a didactic muck. This is a genre whose titles generally preach from the bully pulpit and box their own shadows. But LaDuke is smart. It shows not only in her prose, which is mostly strong with occasional gusts of brilliance, but also in her ability to hold a comprehensive vision across two centuries while marshalling a slew of characters across the pages.

Along the way, Last Standing Woman tells dozens of family and tribal legends passed down the generations, beginning with the earliest migration of a scattered Anishinabe diaspora to White Earth. It's a sort of prelapsarian paradise, pending the inevitable fall from grace into despair. In this telling, of course, it's not God but God's posse--white priests, speculators, farmers, politicians with the paper law on their side--who take it upon themselves to wipe White Earth off the map. Anthropologists flock to the killing grounds with their calipers and shovels, digging up burial grounds, stealing sacred objects, and shipping family bones off to museums back east. Indian agents outlaw traditional ceremonies and stump for the Church by withholding rations (perhaps the first instance of food-as-a-weapon sanctions). Logging companies raze to pulp the area's old-growth timber until the land's a denuded patch.  

By the 1930s, hundreds of Ojibwe have succumbed to tuberculosis in the "Indian wing" of the state sanitarium or been shipped into exile at government-run boarding schools. The coup de grâce of the novel's opening section comes when Father Gilfillian enlists two young boys to help haul 16 Ojibwe headstones from their resting ground at Spirit Lake and plant them in the Episcopal cemetery--a sort of absurd posthumous conversion, minus the body and soul.

From these ashes, the novel weds documented history with word-of-mouth tales in a long middle passage, opening in 1960 in Los Angeles (where LaDuke, whose father was Anishinabe and mother Jewish, grew up) and dropping anchor in 1994 after the armed take-over of White Earth's tribal offices by the Protect Our Land coalition. The weeks-long occupation serves as a catalyst for the entire book, a swift turn of the tide during which two National Guardsmen are taken hostage, a dissident is gunned down, and the FBI--with its signature aplomb--botches a dawn raid and crawls to the negotiating table.

In these later chapters, it becomes clear that Last Standing Woman is also LaDuke's roman à clef--a chronicle of the last couple turbulent decades on White Earth and the author's direct-action role in putting the quash on tribal nepotism (in the role of one Alanis Nordstrom, savvy newspaper reporter). It's played to the end by a cast of real personages so thinly disguised that one can almost imagine the gallons of red ink spilled at the libel lawyer's vetting session.

One may come to wonder, somewhere in the thick of the siege, why LaDuke chose to hybridize the actual history of the reservation with such (occasionally silly) stabs at fiction. As a result, the project switches more than once from a Who's Who at White Earth into a Who's Who on the page; my rough head count came up with a character list as long as Wadena & Co.'s rap sheet. It's as if LaDuke, out of fear for getting the history wrong, didn't comprehend her novelist's right to leave any real people out. The mistake, though, may not be in the sheer throng of names on the page; Isabel Allende carries this trick off in her Eva Luna tales, which I suspect LaDuke took as her book's model. Rather, it's that all but a few characters here remain as strangers, named but not fully rendered, and hard to respond to as a result.

There are other weaknesses in the book. One of LaDuke's sorest habits is portraying every female as good, even--dare I say it?--noble. We know better. Fiction or non-, this is not a convincing practice and makes for questionable politics besides. Another is to lapse into a kind of schoolyard sarcasm when describing non-Indian characters--a tic that, again, seems to shut down possibilities for character; it's too easy to knock down an opponent made of nothing but bitter wind.

That said, what LaDuke does best here is short, dramatic vignettes. Each chapter, some of them only a couple pages long, is a stand-alone story--a complete sketch, freeze-framed in the larger documentary. Several of these chapters near the end are quite stunning: Claire St. Clair's fancy dance with Lady Luck; the return of scavenged ancestral "specimens" from the Smithsonian; and a freak twister that sucks the Christian Retreat Camp right off the rez.

By this method, Last Standing Woman manages to formally memorialize the countless Anishinabeg lives lost over the decades to colonialism and its devastating legacy, and to pay tribute to those who are now engaged in the project of recovery.

Much like White Earth, the Fond du Lac reservation saw its original treaty lands shrink from 100,000 acres in 1854 to about 22,000 at last count. In The Rez Road Follies: Canoes, Casinos, Computers, and Birch Bark Baskets (Kodansha International), Jim Northrup, a member of that reservation, offers a series of free-ranging dispatches from ground zero, taking in the cycles of traditional rez life in northern Minnesota--autumn ricing, winter hibernation, spring sugar bush, the summer powwow trail.

Picking up where Walking the Rez Road (Voyageur Press, 1993) left off, this collection of eight essays folds in groundwork material from his syndicated monthly column, "The Fond du Lac Follies." Northrup is among the most entertaining, provocative voices in Indian Country right now, a man whose good humor about all things Anishinabe is matched only by his gravity about them. At the risk of killing a punch line (he's got plenty), here's one from a "Shinnob" writer who sprinkles his prose with the most bittersweet of jokes: Q: Why is the white man in such a hurry to get to Mars? A: They think we have land there.  

Northrup is a democratic writer, though, when it comes to the greed and folly behind the pressing political issues of the day. In "Racism," Northrup takes on everything from bigots at boat landings to rent-a-shamans to mascots sporting tomahawks and feathers in their hair. (At one point, his sidekick cousin, Rathide, suggests going to a Saints or Padres game dressed as Catholics.) In "Politics," Northrup reserves a special vitriol for the Reservation Business Committee, which wields extraordinary influence over tribal economics, courts, and casino dealings in "what passes for democracy" on the rez; it's no skin off this Skin to hang his elected officials' dirty laundry out on the line.

The more poignant moments here come when Northrup draws his bead on the effects of the Fond du Lac's high-stakes casinos--the worst of which, to his mind, is the creation of a class-based society on the rez. And then there are the more standard complaints the author names: the travesty of native "relics" being dug up and put on display at museums; the federal government's standard practice, earlier this century, of forced sterilization for Native women; and, in especially intimate terms, the sorry aftermath of the Vietnam war. Northrup himself was a grunt in Vietnam and saw combat "at the bayonet end of America's foreign policy" there. In the late '70s, he came home to Fond du Lac and, like a lot of shell-shocked vets, went in search of a quiet mind in the woods, holing up in a tipi for six years.

What makes this author an ideal navigator through these straits is his insider take--his parents and their parents before them were "Fonjalackers"--his generous knowledge, and his pragmatism about keeping the better part of tradition while staying current with the times. "Because we live in two worlds," Northrup writes in a description of the custom of hulling wild rice in a pit by dancing on it, "the music comes from a powwow tape or a rock-and-roll radio station." In another passage, he advises making moccasin tracks on the information superhighway by putting gambling revenues toward a computer in every rez home.

In 1991, a university researcher in Duluth surveyed a group of fourth- and fifth-graders in suburban Bloomington about their impressions of Native Americans. Among their answers were these: "They could be like us if they worked hard." "They all eat raw meat." "They are wig collectors." "They still live in teepees, are hungry, and probably have no clothes." "When the teacher told us they were still alive, it sure surprised me." Northrup's writings are not only something of a corrective to such misconceptions, but a chronicle of the actual absurdities of rez life; where these kids are learning ignorance, Northrup's experience is one of growing up ironic.

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